Motherhood with a Knife | Furie (2019) Review

Furie 2

Directed by Lê Văn Kiệt
Starring Veronica Ngo, Cát Vy, Phan Thanh Nhiên, Phạm Anh Khoa, Trần Thanh Hoa

Furie was a mega-hit in Vietnam and became a crossover success; I watched it on Netflix. It’s tempting to ascribe a Thailand/Indonesia breakout narrative here, as the film’s aesthetics recall Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and Merantau, and the passion behind its making suggests national pride. It broke box office records across the country and provided Vietnam its Oscar submission for 2019. However, this is not an actual debut. The cinema of Vietnam is older and more storied than I realized, and that lack of awareness is partly why I hope Furie indicates the path forward. Gorgeous and confident, graced by moody color and a free-flowing camera, there’s no mistaking it for the unrefined opening statement of a burgeoning industry, as in Ong-Bak and Merantau, but without those rough edges, it comes up short on character.

Where the early crossover hits from Japan and Korea’s New Wave in the ‘90s and early 2000s were marked by extreme violence and taboo themes (Miike, Kitamura, Park, Bong), garnering the “Extreme Asian” label for international distribution which very nearly became the basis of this site, Furie is by comparison tame. Even the title is amped up from the original Vietnamese, which is simply the character’s name, Hai Phượng. Granted, level of violence isn’t the only measure of spectacle, but unlike with its contemporary The Villainess, there’s no show-stopping set piece, no daring experimentation. And still unlike with Bruce Lee’s messaging to the world, there’s little on Furie’s mind. It is comparatively simple, and the experience of watching it might have been an exercise in learning to appreciate simplicity: a purity of concept, maybe.

This is the final stumble in the film’s premise. The setup is standard revenge, with the chasing of a kidnapped daughter through a criminal underworld. Following a familiar template so close to the letter, there’s increased pressure on style or themes or whichever outstanding element might evidence a reason for being. I’m comfortable with the vanilla of a film like The Rhythm Section, because it’s rare to see a woman take on that role and rarer still for a woman to lens her. Hai Phuong being a female lead in a brutal action movie is Furie’s sole marker of difference, but it’s also what opens up a universe of my own expectations. It was disappointing, then, to see the brutal action movie struggle against the template, because they are strictly at odds.

The logline cited above is perfect grounds for brutal violence, but also for a story of redemption, morality, and family, all of which are fine on their own, but in this case keep a film decidedly earnest. Furie isn’t given over to pure mayhem that may have incidentally introduced some needed levity. In other words, this is a film with flashbacks. After Mai is kidnapped, Phuong is haunted by visions of Mai pre-kidnapping. Later, we’re wracked by flashbacks of Phuong’s martial arts training, and later still, flashbacks of trouble with her father and family.

This is the kind of movie that John Wick consciously reacts to, swapping the murdered or kidnapped family member for a dog, and locating the character within the action, not without. What makes John Wick compelling isn’t his march toward redemption, if that’s where he’s headed, but his skill in combat, the exhaustion and melancholy at his fate-tinged violence, and his legends, which function more as hype (even marketing) than backstory. None of these things are traditional characterization, and if you’d like to call John Wick a flat character, I think that’s completely fair and a necessary trade-off. Phuong is a character best described in her flashbacks, and these disrupt the forward momentum once thought central to a movie structured around a chase.

In fact, it’s less of a chase and more of a journey. With several showcases for Ngô Thanh Vân’s acting, whether she’s collapsed and crying or bellowing her psychic pain, it’s a surprisingly dramatic journey, yet one at odds with the true heart of the film. This is a broader point, that with action movies and especially action movies headlining women, the heart is elusive. The cynic in me is eager to proclaim that men are hesitant to portray women in full-on Crank rampage mode, but I’d give director Lê Văn Kiệt a lot of credit for his egalitarian world. Phuong at first answers to a woman loan shark, and the gangster villain is a massively muscled woman, Thanh Soi. So even if Phuong isn’t the bone-breaking, throat-stabbing valkyrie of my gorehound dreams, she comes from a seeming good place and gets the job done. On top of that, she manages to make a statement in an accidentally subversive way.

It isn’t until Iko Uwais debuts in America, land of the shirtless action star, that he pops his top to do battle. In The Raid: Redemption, he’s full-on tactical, in The Night Comes for Us, dressed for an evening out. No matter how red in the face he and his opponents get, there is no dramatic rage-stripping to signal the next phase of the fight. This film logic of apparel has a functional equal in its female leads, whether it’s form-fitting bodysuits or high heels. See also, when film rents Lara Croft, or we’re licensed the heroines of various Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez projects, whose fetishization extends troublingly beyond the screen. So much to say, this is what my eyes are used to, and they required a minor adjustment seeing Phuong steal a motorcycle and promptly don a helmet — safety first! — to chase down the bad guys through crowds and along the precarious edge of a river. She’s not here to look sexy or even cool, she’s just here to kick ass, and now don’t I look strange, assuming you couldn’t do one without the other?

We learn two things about Phuong in the film’s much-appreciated straight-to-business opening sequence: she’s here to kick ass indeed, and, well, she’s kind of a dick. If you think that’s me being harsh, the extremely gossipy fishers and shop owners hardly fuss if their wandering critiques of others hit stray ears. Phuong’s daughter Mai is picked on in school for being the daughter of a violent debt collector, and then she’s picked on in the marketplace for talking back to her mom! The kid can’t win, and this is all moments before the catalyzing kidnap. This establishing act of Furie lays out familial issues between mother and daughter which can’t possibly be solved by further, if redirected, violence. Or so you did not think.

After Phuong has trampled her way through the city, crossing opponents and telling them “Let’s fight” in the ancient language of fighters: silence, she reunites with Mai, arriving in an ultimate place. Not only has she been fighting, she’s also been opening herself up to old vulnerabilities. Looking for help, she’s immediately turned down by her old friend, and then by her own brother. The first lets her know there’s a villain in town, and the second gives voice to what’s already been said countless times — Phuong is a bad guy — but now from a more cutting source and at a higher volume. All of this karmic irony, in addition to a bumbling police force, push Phuong toward self-reliance in the action department, and self-reflection in the character department. She accepts that, yes, she is a bad guy and a bad mother, but if she saves the day, then… who’ll criticize her?

In total, I’m not really sure how stabbing your nemesis a dozen times in as many different places effects the development of an improved parenting philosophy, or how Phuong’s sweet resolution to train Mai in martial arts answers their central issue of trust. I think there may be an element of Phuong passing down her father’s teachings about bravery to Mai, returning home in spirit and satisfying the film’s moral center. So what do we learn? What Phuong was doing in the opening sequence was wrong. Better to use those powers for good. But then we ask: “Why was she doing wrong?” Because it can’t be both wrong and inescapable. Especially as I for one found it extremely compelling.

So, we have the story of an anti-hero learning to become a hero, and in doing so, she eradicates all possibilities for anti along the way. It’s a very active process. A morally ambiguous fight scene in the middle of her journey gives way to the punishment of faceless goons who traffic in children. Either way, I could be happy. While I don’t require badass women to be morally agreeable, to myself or the logic of the film, the important thing is she’s kicking ass. So long as she does, it doesn’t matter the context or the ass kicking’s severity. Or so I’ve always believed, because movies like Furie didn’t exist back in the day, and are still rare. I’ve been spoiled by a few accidental glimpses into a much bloodier future, courtesy of movies which make the inevitable trade of woman-centering for pure carnage, so Furie arrives without the element of surprise.

In a review for Birds of Prey, I mentioned a desire for a stable of forgettable woman-led action films to provide a basis for evolution, in a league with Taken and The Transporter (which clearly haven’t been forgotten, so maybe Run All Night and Homefront). It’s cruel to argue that Furie is apiece here, and I do think Ngô’s performance sets it apart, but I have to note it’s too late to start building this stable now. Let this be a foundation of one. I’d love to see Ngô and Lê Văn Kiệt and other like-minded individuals take the next step, break out for all nations.

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